Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Release the Hounds

June 30, 2010

Michelle Terry and Fiona Shaw
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/NT 2010

Usually, I would not write about seeing a performance via a remote broadcast, be it live, taped, HD, or what-have-you, because in some ways, I feel it’s cheating. No matter what anybody says, live and in person is never the same as in some movie theater somewhere. Granted for some shows the video experience may be the superior of the two options, but they aren't equivalent. However that being said, I did attend one of the live broadcasts from Britain’s National Theater this week and wanted to mention it since broadcasts of the same performance will occur all around the San Francisco Bay area throughout July and it is a show absolutely worth seeing, even under less-than-live circumstances. The production in question is an updated revival of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance from 1841 in a staging under the direction of NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner. In pre-performance comments, Hytner downplayed the piece as little more than escapist Victorian comedy that had been tweaked for modern audiences. Usually when I hear such a proclamation, it means the show has been filled with cynical knowing winks to contemporary viewers with the broadest of gags heightened and placed front and center.

Simon Russell Beale
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/NT 2010

But Hytner’s verbal, witty and surprisingly physical take on a play unknown to virtually most people is incredibly funny and supremely enjoyable. And what is most admirable in a near perfect cast is that the physicality in the comedy is accomplished without slapstick. These are actors blessed with such expressive gestures and movement that just watching their bodies is a show in and of itself independent of the admittedly far-fetched plot. Simon Russell Beale’s turn as Sir Harcourt Courtly, the vain and ridiculous older suitor at the center of the story generates more laughs with his posture than I’ve seen some actors deliver in an entire performances. As Sir Courtly’s unexpected object of affection, Lady Gay Spanker, Fiona Shaw makes fox hunting sound funnier than it has any right to be. Shaw gives physical exuberance a whole new twist in this comedy of town and country. I don’t want to reveal much more, but if you live in the Bay Area you should check out the National Theater Live web site for a listing of theaters and showtimes in July and go see this broadcast. I am seriously tempted to drive up north myself for a second viewing given that the live broadcast was the only screening in this area. You’ve been warned and have no excuse to miss this.


South by Southwest

June 29, 2010

David Pittsinger and Carmen Cusack
Photo: Curtis Brown/CTG 2010

Throughout this month as L.A. Opera has been mounting a visionary and challenging production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, right across the Music Center plaza, Center Theater Group is hosting a production that could not be more different in sensibility despite some crucial underlying operatic leanings. On Sunday, I finally got a break to see this touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in Bartlett Sher’s much-lauded staging that brought the work back to Broadway for the first time in decades. And even in this reduced touring version, it’s an impressive, if conventional and easy to access, show. Which for many theater-goers, may make it a perfect summer entertainment. The music is familiar to everyone and if you insist on hummable, memorable tunes, they're here in spades and performed quite expertly to boot. If anything surprised me in the work itself, it was how difficult that many of these vocal roles seem to be. Granted none of it is Brünnhilde or Siegfried, but I can understand why the role of Emile de Becque has turned into such a plum role for operatic Baritones. In the latter half of the L.A. run, the role has been played by David Pittsinger who also appeared in the Broadway run. Having seen him in L.A. Opera’s last couple of turns at Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, I was pleased to see him here being totally believable as the expatriate French plantation owner. In fact the caliber of his vocal performance runs the risk of calling some of the other casts’ vocal qualities into question. South Pacific appears to musically be written for another time with differently trained voices perhaps not quite so reliant on amplification. The only other cast member I felt who kept up to Pittsinger was Keala Settle’s Bloody Mary which gave me major Dolora Zajick-Azucena flashbacks. (Or was that premonitions.)

Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda
Photo: Peter Coombs/CTG 2010

Of course, vocal technique is not the only thing that’s changed since the 1940s. The stage is littered with much harder bodies than were typically the norm in either New York or the South Pacific of the period. These naval officers appear to have had plenty of gym time in between their duties for Uncle Sam. But this is really a minor detail. Sher's production is energetic and bright and convincingly acted by a wonderful large cast. It’s a detailed and frankly loving vision that doesn’t stray into camp and avoids the temptation of visual overkill. Scenes are often set with little more than horizontal bamboo curtains and light with the faint glow of sand dunes and the sea upstage. Things can drag a bit at times, particularly with some of the more dated melodramatic material in the piece. And the examination of racist attitudes of the period seems a little oblique considering that it’s a topic still very relevant to a modern audience. In fact this production seems a lot less relevant to today's world than one might wish. But certainly nostalgia is what some people want out of the theater, and frankly they could do much worse than this highly enjoyable revival. South Pacific continues at the Ahmanson Theater through July 17.


The Hard Way

June 28, 2010

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on stage at the Wiltern
Photo: mine 2010

What better way to end a month full of Wagner than with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. There is no real connection here and I’m not trying to imply one. Sometimes it’s just best to finish the Beaujolais and walk away if you know what I mean. I last saw SJDK, as their backdrop proclaims them on their current tour, at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 as the second act on a triple bill of “world music.” At the time I was blown away and mostly desired to hear a more substantial set from this ensemble in a more hospitable venue. Well, my wish was granted this weekend at the Wiltern Theater when Ms. Jones and her formidable fellow musicians appeared on their current West Coast tour in support of their latest recording I Learned the Hard Way. It’s a relatively more musically adventurous collection of songs for the group, but all of the material blended nicely on Saturday.

Which is no surprise, considering how incredibly tight this ensemble of 15 or so is, including four strings, three horns, and back-up singers. The show puts Jones front and center in a not at all tongue-in-cheek homage to a 1960s Soul revue à la James Brown. The outfits, mannerism, and consummate musicianship are all there. Even a sort of retro party atmosphere is maintained as Ms. Jones invited various men and women to climb up onto the stage during the performance to dance or interact with her. Some in the audience got a little carried away, clambering over the breech without an invitation, which though inappropriate lent a sort of bygone exuberance as well. Ms. Jones arrives on stage with hyperbolic fanfare that she soon delivers on with an immense amount of energy and feeling. All of this was maintained without a hitch in a nearly marathon two and a half hour show that never flagged and covered everything you could possibly want to hear, including their calling card rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” which is no less powerful now after having accompanied the opening credits to Reitman’s Up in the Air. What I love most about SJDK besides their superb musicianship is the fact that they're selling something completely unrelated to much of what is currently marketed as popular music, and they don't seem to care. Yet this is much, much more than nostalgia. It's passionate, engaging music that I will dearly miss until they come around again.


We Are All Wotan

June 26, 2010


Or at least that was the perspective of Achim Freyer, the director of LA Opera’s monumental staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which completes its run today at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I’d heard him speak on at least three occasions in L.A. during his time here and was fortunate enough to see nine of the twelve individual performances in the Ring cycle presentations this month. I'm not going to make it to tonight's final Götterdämmerung due to some family obligations, but I'll definitely be there in spirit. Things have changed a lot over the course of the development and execution of this cycle, not only in terms of economic reality but also in terms of the increasingly positive response audiences have had to the show. As has been widely noted, LA Opera did not sell all the tickets they had hoped. But, undoubtedly, as the cycles started in June, the dynamic in the house began to change. The crowds became progressively louder and more enthusiastic not only about the musical aspects of the production, which is to be expected, but more and more over the theatrical aspects as well. Freyer, who has attended all of the performances could be seen after some of the shows toward the end mobbed by admirers and fans. Some of the performances in the last cycle did sell out. The people in the audience were not your typical opera crowd. The number of younger folks with tight jeans and pink hair clearly outnumbered those with oxygen machines and those funny plastic horned helmets a certain generation of Ring fans like to wear.

Most of the commemorative souvenirs offered up by the Opera League were long gone by the time the third and final cycle got underway. Moreover, the resourceful company took advantage of the presence of an enthusiastic audience by raising funds through a costume sale. Specifically, many of the prototype costumes designed and hand-painted by Freyer and his daughter as part of the earliest rehearsals for the Ring many years ago were offered up to the public. They were gone over the course of two performances, and I was lucky enough to snag a couple of these one-of-a-kind mementos for myself. (Yes that’s me in the accompanying photos festooned with a Gibichung mask, prototype Alberich coat sans bloody, ripped-off arm, and magnificent red Siegfried chest.)

Sadly, a video recording of the production will not be among my reminders of these performances, a particular sore point for many in the crowd and the company itself. It would be nice to see the production filmed in a later outing when funds may be more available, but honestly I’m not so sure that it would work anyway. Like most great stage productions, Freyer’s vision won’t look very good with standard video technique. This is not a show about up close faces and small physical gestures. It’s dependent on large scale sweeping video images and spaces around and between performers. But hopefully the production will live on, especially here in L.A. LA Opera’s COO Stephen Rountree was quoted earlier stating that the production would not be revived until 2018 at the earliest. Even that seems like a long wait, though probably a realistic time frame given the cost of mounting the cycle overall. But remount it they should and hopefully with more willing and able principals than this time around. (Why not sign up Jennifer Wilson, the current staging’s Gutrune, for Brünnhilde now? She can certainly sing it as she has proven elsewhere and she already knows plenty about getting around that highly raked stage.)

Regardless of video or future revivals, though, LA Opera has produced something remarkable and important. Freyer, music director James Conlon, and the entire company and cast created a landmark production and a true work of art. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, and it certainly came with truckloads of controversy. But I know, for me at least, the production was both completely satisfying and it was hugely influential on my thinking about opera and theater in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. Already I’ve had the experience of seeing other performances I know that I would have raved about a year ago that in the wake of this Ring leave me cold. I’ve seen plenty of operas and certainly other Ring cycles in the flesh, but this was different. Or, as I overheard the couple next to me last Wednesday say, they’d seen the Ring on two occasions before in Seattle, but had never looked forward to the individual performances the way they had here in L.A. Freyer’s Ring matters because, along with a few other productions in the last decade, it is one of the first to break free of the long shadow Patrice Chereau has cast over Wagner’s operas in the last three decades. Freyer’s vision is not just another Regietheater sociopolitical adaptation of Wagner’s work. It’s also not just a reactionary response to Chereau like Schenk’s wooded fairytale that has finally exited stage right in New York. Freyer’s vision is unique, demanding its own terms for a rendering that is traditional but never conventional. And though life goes on, I for one am going to miss living in that world, though I suspect like most great theater, its memory will live on for me in all kinds of ways.


All Filler. No Killer.

June 24, 2010


On Wednesday, I tweeted this:
It's official. There is no longer any reason to subscribe to @UCLALive. 10/11 season is pointless without theater.
To which I received this direct message from @UCLALive:
Which sounds to me like a question that deserves an answer. The less than 140 character version would be:
You betcha.
The longer one would be:

It comes as no surprise that the 2010/2011 UCLALive season that was announced on June 23rd is a disappointment. Following the sudden dramatic resignation of David Sefton, the organization’s artistic director for nearly a decade, it had already been made clear that economic woes had forced the university to cut back on programming in ways that Sefton felt were unacceptable. This included canceling the annual International Theater Festival and, according to comments Sefton made in the Los Angeles Times, "unbooking" acts he had already made arrangements with to perform in L.A. However, after finally seeing what UCLALive had to offer for next season, I can now understand why he left in such haste. I’d have bailed ship too rather than embarrass myself by having my name associated with the complete evisceration of one of the city’s most important performing arts programs.

The loss of the International Theater Festival is enormous. It has been the centerpiece of the entire series for many years and was just about the only component of the UCLALive schedule that brought works to L.A. that there was no chance of seeing anywhere else locally and in relatively few locations elsewhere in this country. Surely this must have been some of the most expensive programming UCLALive sponsored, and undoubtedly its attendance and revenue generation had been hampered by the poor economy of the last two years. However, to enforce the dumping of all theater performances as part of the next season marks a complete inability of the powers-that-be to distinguish art from filler. Let me put this in the most direct terms. If UCLALive was looking to reduce the costs of their programming, they could have cut everything except two or three theatrical events and they would have produced a more entertaining and important season than the promise of decidedly unremarkable leftovers served up this week.

But let’s put the loss of the Theater Festival aside for the moment. What’s even more disappointing about the 2010/2011 season on offer in Westwood is how redundant, unoriginal, and ultimately unimportant the rest of what is promised for next year is. Much of the programming is little more than repeat engagements from artists who’ve appeared at UCLA time and again in the past. Does it really set UCLA apart to host another annual visit from David Sedaris? Even the supposedly big events—live visits from Murray Perahia, Stephen Sondheim, and Laurie Anderson—have all been there, done that, given that each of these artists have appeared doing more or less the same thing at UCLA within the last few years. The classical music offerings are pretty sad as well. There will certainly be more familiar faces like the Takács Quartet and Jeffrey Kahane. But of the six classical performances offered, all but one are exclusively chamber music and one of those is a mysteriously nondescript organ concert that neither indicates what is being played or who is scheduled to perform. Now that’s what I call music.

It’s a shame that UCLALive has gone from a leader in the local performing arts scene to veritable life support in such a short time. This is especially true considering the number of local arts organizations that are proving you can operate successfully even in this economic environment with edgier and unusual programming such at the Theater @Boston Court and Long Beach Opera. But there is hope. Both REDCAT and the Broad Stage have shown interest in welcoming experimental theater from both local and foreign shores and have done so with some success in the last three to five years. And while neither have the facilities that UCLA does, apparently both have a bit more savvy about what’s worth saving and what’s not when it comes to live performance. And best of all, neither of these venues charges you ten dollars to park just so you can then walk across campus to the theater.


Cause Célèbre

June 23, 2010


Given the amount of time I spend attending live classical music performances or theater here in Los Angeles, the number of times I actually come into contact with bona fide Hollywood celebrity types and/or the people who work directly with them in “the industry” seem relatively few. Not that it never happens, but I don’t often overhear phrases like “I loved your pilot” or “Let’s take a meeting” used in casual conversation. So it was very out of the ordinary on Monday to find myself in the presence of the aforementioned chatter and so much celebrity business, both on stage, on paper, and in the audience, at the Los Angeles return of Celebrity Autobiography at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. For the uninitiated, Celebrity Autobiography is a decade old recurring event that originated in Los Angeles under the guidance of Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel. The concept is simple and often hilarious like a clever party game. Celebrities, and in particular comics, get up in front of an audience and give dramatic readings of excerpts from the most poorly written books and autobiographies of other celebrities. The goal is humor and the strategy to achieve it often involves casting against type between author and reader.

Celebrity Autobiography has taken several forms over the years including a 2005 Bravo TV special and more recently a monthly residency at the Triad Theater in Manhattan which has led to a bit of a renaissance for the event which has, in part, brought its creators back to L.A. where it all began. The show is scheduled to make several monthly appearances on the Edye Second Space at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica into 2011. At the Broad Stage's invitation, I attended the second performance on Monday along with the likes of Lily Tomlin for what was a hysterical evening, if a bit long in the tooth. The cast rotates, and Monday’s group was superb, including Fred Willlard, Alan Zweibel, Brooke Shields, Laraine Newman, and Rita Wilson among others. Michael Urie read from Tommy Lee’s Tommyland as well as a tome by David Hasselhoff, which was superb. Florence Henderson meanwhile provided some critical reassessment of Madonna’s Sex from 1992. The other authors on the agenda included the likes of Mr. T, Suzanne Somers, Marilu Henner, and Tiger Woods. In perhaps some of the funniest routines of the evening, several readers came onstage together and reconstructed tabloid style events such as the breakup of Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson using dueling passages from their different tell-all accounts. I don’t want to say too much more about the actual readings, because the show is one of those things that is much funnier the less you know going in. If I do have any criticism of the program, it is that it can feel a little over rehearsed at times with some lack of spontaneity. Additionally some of the chosen book material is hardly hot of the presses from the world of celebrity publishing. The romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fischer is certainly still a source for potential laughs, but it's hardly breaking news. There are two performances each scheduled for July 19th and September 26th in Santa Monica both of which will feature different readers and authors so check back at the Broad's site for more information.


Regrets, I've Had a Few

June 22, 2010

Stefano Secco and John Relyea
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2010

The third, and for me final, production of San Francisco Opera’s 09/10 season was Gounod’s Faust. I always have mixed feelings about seeing this opera because I continue to feel it’s a great work, but more often than not it seems to be treated with little respect or care when it arrives on stage, at least here in the U.S. I often hear other opera fans speak of it with derision, and it hardly seems like a “greatest hits” kind of show like Butterfly or Bohème. And yet, it appears time and again, as in San Francisco this weekend where it is almost like an afterthought compared to the attention and focus placed on the house’s other summer productions, La Fanciulla del West and Die Walküre. While the conducting duties of these other productions were handled respectively by San Francisco Opera’s current music director, Nicola Luisotti, and the former one, Donald Runnicles, Faust was under the guidance of Maurizio Benini. He’s an affable enough presence, I suppose, but musically, this Faust was pretty lifeless and often heavier than it needed to be. The absent lightness of touch that can make or break many of these French masterworks was in short supply on stage as well. While I do like Patricia Racette, she seemed a bit of an odd choice for Marguerite. After seeing her excel recently as both Butterfly and Suor Angelica, I’ve begun to think she comes alive most when there’s some meat and heft to her roles. Her Faust was Stefano Secco, a tenor I’ve liked elsewhere including as Don Carlo in Paris a couple of years back. This time around I felt he was a little tight in his upper register, but certainly made the most of Act II anyway. I never felt much connection between Faust and Marguerite here, but I can't say why that is. John Relyea sang Méphistophélès with a gleefulness that was certainly dark if not exactly creepy. He appeared sober throughout this performance, a trait not common among all basses I’ve witnessed in this production, so he gets big points for professionalism.

The well traveled production from Jose Maria Condemi and Robert Perdziola is efficient and not unattractive, but it’s not going to win anyone over without some kick-ass musical performances to bolster it. And though I consider all of these vocalists worthwhile performers, this was not the team that was going to sell this opera. Even the production itself appeared to be watered down. When I saw the same staging in Chicago last year, one of the creepier moments occurred in the church scene in Act IV where the large crucifix next to Méphistophélès inverts as Marguerite runs from the stage to avoid his taunting threats of eternal damnation. Not so in San Francisco on Sunday. I hope it was a technological glitch or shortcoming of some kind as opposed to any timidity over offending the sensibilities of local audiences. In any event, it was rather an unremarkable afternoon for a very beautiful opera. The production runs through July 1 for those wanting to brave the waters.


To Have and Have Not

June 20, 2010

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2010

Night two of my weekend in San Francisco included the very well-reviewed production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, which San Francisco Opera is rolling out this summer in advance of its upcoming presentation of the complete Ring cycle in 2011. The good news is that musically it is all it’s cracked up to be. The orchestra under maestro Runnicles is superb with no flagging strings or flubbed brass lines to be heard. The cast is uniformly strong with no real weak links. But better yet, there are a few performers that are among the world’s best in these roles. The Brünnhilde both here and in next year’s Ring cycles is Nina Stemme who is undoubtedly without a serious challenger for the title of best currently performing Brünnhilde in the world. (That is since Christine Brewer doesn’t appear to be heading to the stage in a full-fledged production any time soon.) After weeks in Los Angeles listening to Linda Watson caterwaul her way through this part, hearing Stemme’s effortless turn in this role pretty much cleaned my clock. Mind you this was after she got a “please excuse me I’m sick” announcement from David Gockley before the start of the show. You’d never have guessed for a minute there was anything wrong from tonight’s performance. I was also taken with Christopher Ventris as Siegmund. It’s high time he got to sing Parsifal somewhere in the US (again) and his appearance in the new DVD release of Pfitzner’s Palestrina from the Bayerische Staatsoper is a must see. The other name that deserves the big spotlight here is Eva-Maria Westbroek who sang Sieglinde, a role she’ll perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, but not in the San Francisco cycles next year. Westbroek has been long overdue for her first American appearances after developing quite a reputation in Europe in roles from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth to Jenufa. Her clarity, power, and brilliance here were jaw-dropping. (Her website indicates that Isolde is scheduled to enter her repertoire in 2013. And who says there's nothing to look forward to in opera?)

So there’s plenty of reasons to go see this Die Walküre even though it might have worked much, much better as a total opera experience if it weren’t for Francesca Zambello’s middle-brow staging. Imported to San Francisco following Washington National Opera’s aborted plans for a complete cycle in 2009, Zambello’s “American” cycle draws on images from 20th-century American history in a standard post-Chereau sociopolitical interpretation of Wagner's work. It’s not bad looking and frankly about a decade ago it would have been decidedly above average. Unfortunately “average” has moved over the last few years with ground-breaking visions from La Fura dels Baus and Achim Freyer that have called into question this approach still rising out of the ashes of Shaw. Even the early hints of coming work from Guy Cassiers in Milan and Robert LePage in New York would suggest Zambello is going to need to bring much more to the table than parachuting Valkyries, abandoned freeways, and the ever-present trench coat to maintain any relevance. Even worse than the gimmickry here, there's a real telegraphing of emotional content where the production manhandles the music. To watch Wotan and Brünnhilde embrace on cue with the musical climaxes in Act III has all the thoughtfulness of a German language telenovela. Still, I wouldn’t miss this cycle for the world (and have already ordered my tickets for next year) if for no other reason than to hear this fantastic orchestra under Runnicles and Nina Stemme. And while opera is most certainly theater, a great musical performance can make it all worthwhile.


How The West Was Sung

June 19, 2010

Salvatore Licitra and Deborah Voigt
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2010

Much to my surprise, and perhaps against my better judgment, I found myself rather enjoying San Francisco Opera’s current production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West last night. Admittedly, it’s not an opera I was overly familiar with going into, so it may have benefited from my having little in my mind to compare it to. On paper, this Fanciulla had a number of strikes against it. First off was a big-ticket “celebrity” cast comprised of several individuals whose track records are increasingly spotty at best. Salvatore Licitra is not a name that makes me want to buy a ticket to anything, but his performance as Dick Johnson di Sacramento was quite good vocally. No snap, crackle, or pop here and there was comparably little strain in his upper register. This is the second time I’ve heard him perform admirably in recent years making me think perhaps I should reevaluate my position on him. Then there is Deborah Voigt as the titular Golden Girl. Of course, the party line these days is that she doesn’t have the voice she once did. And I will agree her top notes in particular can be shouted and shrill, but I think it’s unfair to put too much focus on the changes in her voice over time. She still shapes vocal lines with real beauty and her acting is quite good. Her San Francisco Minnie, the first of many she’ll sing with later stops in New York and Chicago, is convincing despite the Dale Evans leatherette get-up she has to wear here.

The production itself is clearly in love with Hollywood visions of the West. And while this isn’t a bad thing, the production is often hampered by a number of half-measures that keep it from being more than unobtrusively pleasant. Imported from Palermo under the direction of Lorenzo Mariani with sets by Maurizio Balò, the show kicks off with miners rappelling down a large red-hued rock wall that becomes a back drop for all the interiors in the rest of the opera. It’s immediately reminiscent of Ray’s Johnny Guitar, but one’s hopes for a Trucolor bath with the likes of Mercedes McCambridge are soon dashed with more run-of-the-mill visions of the old West. I liked the snow-covered cliffs surrounding Minnie’s wall-less cabin in Act II, and the field of oil lamps used for the final duet in Act I had an appropriate Romantic resonance. Of course, there is the obligatory live horse crammed into Act III which always comes off to me as more sad than spectacular in this day and age.

The major asset of this particular evening, though, was the San Francisco Opera orchestra under music director Nicola Luisotti. He reportedly is a big advocate of this piece and he led a performance that was Wagnerian in proportions. Not that it was overly serious or Germanic by any means, but it was played with a real Romantic flair and care that made an excellent case for the depth and complexity of Puccini’s score. And while the opera itself is weighed down with the numerous weaknesses of the libretto, Luisotti was having none of it, communicating much more than what was contained in the comparably insufficient words sung by the onstage characters. Which is never a bad thing for an opera to do.


More Gött

June 16, 2010

Wednesday is the final performance in L.A. Opera’s second complete Ring Cycle. I have very bittersweet feelings about going since it is likely my last exposure to this production, which as many of you know, I absolutely love and admire. But opera lovers do not live by the Ring alone, and I’m headed up to San Francisco this weekend to catch the summer offerings in the Bay area including the well-reviewed Francesca Zambello production of Die Walküre which will hopefully help me deal with my Wagner withdrawal. For those of you getting ready to start the final cycle on Friday, I have nothing but envy so let me offer you two more stars of the cycle to watch for.

Jennifer Wilson as Gutrune and Alan Held as Gunther
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

American soprano Jennifer Wilson and bass-baritone Alan Held are two well regarded vocalists who show up in the Ring only in the final chapter as the brother and sister act of Gutrune and Gunther. As with other on stage performers in the production, they appear in masks throughout their entire performances, emphasizing their characters' displacement from the world of gods and monsters around them. Jennifer Wilson is a bright sounding and crystalline Wagnerian soprano who is likely among the next cohort of major international stars who sing the roles of Isolde and Brünnhilde. She’s already regularly covering these roles for more established stars whose days, shall we say, are clearly numbered in this repertoire. I first saw Wilson step in as Isolde in Chicago last year with little notice and she performed admirably, singing as well as more than a couple first-stringers I’ve seen in the part. She’s also raised her profile by appearing as Brünnhilde in the notable Ring cycle filmed in Valencia, Spain in a production by La Fura dels Baus, which you can sample above. And while she doesn’t have quite so much to do here in Los Angeles, she throws herself into the stage business, both comical and serious, Freyer has laid out for her character here, including managing a number of “wardrobe malfunctions” caused by an amorous Siegfried.

Jennifer Wilson

Wilson’s on-stage brother Gunther is played by one of my favorite bass-baritones, Alan Held. He’s another of those vocalists, I feel is ever present in my opera-going experience and I wonder why he isn’t a much bigger star than he already is. His Wozzeck which I saw in New York in 2005 comes to mind as well as his performance as Wagner’s Höllander and Offenbach’s Four Villains. He’s no stranger to any number of Ring roles as well, and his Gunther here in Los Angeles is both pitiable and strangely touching. I am struck by Held’s ability to deliver a substantial performance without being able to rely on facial expression to communicate with the audience. As much complaining as some folks have done about Freyer’s use of masks in this production, it’s remarkable to watch these singing actors flex their acting muscles by producing quality performances in the context of these restraints. We’re lucky to have Held back in Los Angeles and I for one hope he’s back again soon.

Alan Held


More Details

June 14, 2010

Eric Halfvarson as Hagen
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

I was back at Los Angeles Opera’s Siegfried on Sunday as part of the second Ring Cycle I’m attending there and must admit I was pleasantly surprised. After a somewhat rough and tumble performance of Die Walküre on Thursday, the orchestra and vocalists bounced back with the strongest Siegfried performance I’ve heard them give. And at the center of it all was the best performance I’ve yet heard out of John Treleaven in the title role. Not that it was perfect, but he did more than just get through tonight. He delivered Act III with real energy and was much more on-target pitch-wise than I've seen him. Hopefully he's hit his stride, or something, here and will keep this up over the next two weeks. The orchestra sounded cleaner than it did at he end of last week as well. Overall, it was another lovely performance. I was also taken with the sheer number of younger people in the audience on Sunday. It seems that word about this production is reaching circles of folks you don’t typically spot at the opera and the lower-priced tickets that have become available have been a boon for people wanting to go who otherwise could not afford it. It’s also certainly not the regular subscriber crowd. I think it’s a great thing and I can only hope it translates into a broader audience for LA Opera overall, even after this Ring is sadly gone. Speaking of which, this is just about your last chance to see it before its gone since the final cycle starts this Friday evening, the 18th of June.

Stacey Tappan

I thought I might mention a couple more vocal stars of the cycle who may not always get top billing, though they deserve it. One performer who continues to inspire me is soprano Stacey Tappan. Tappan is singing both the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and the Woodbird in the cycle, so she gets the lucky job of being in most of the productions. She’s been appearing here in L.A. for several years in a number of small roles including a superb turn as the Wren in last season’s production of Braunfels' Die Vögel. Her bright tone and clarity has been a welcome addition to roles that all too often go undercast for a variety of reasons. Tappan is scheduled to reprise these roles next year in the San Francisco Opera Ring cycle and is yet another reason to be there.

Ronnita Nicole Miller

Speaking of Rhinemaidens, another member of L.A.’s cast, Ronnita Nicole Miller, will also be making the trip to San Francisco next year. As a current member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program, Miller has also secured a number of small but very noticeable parts with LA Opera such as with her performance of Martuccia in Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten. Here in L.A. she is singing both the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde and Schwertleite in Die Walküre. She was one of the highlights of the recent Zarzuela program with Placido Domingo at the Broad Stage as well. Best of all, her San Francisco performances represent a bit of a Ring promotion where she’ll be leaving the Rhine (and Schwertleite) for the role of Erda and the First Norn.

Of course, perhaps the hardest working vocalist of the LA Ring cycle is Eric Halfvarson. He's had a lengthy career on many of the world's great opera stages and L.A. is lucky to hear him sing the Ring cycle villains which he's best known for. The bass sang a spectacular Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo here in 2006 and he'll be singing the role later this year at the metropolitan Opera as well. His Hagen is malevolent and puckish, wielding a Wagnerian remote control in Freyer's vision of Götterdämmerung over the last several months. It's a remarkable performance here that's also filled with a lot of sadness. But over the entire cycle, Halfvarson’s also busy as Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried and Hunding in Die Walküre. He does it all from crawling around in a kneeling giant costume to racing around the stage with a red LED tube. And all of this while giving a super vocal performance.


The Hills Have Eyes

June 13, 2010

George Benjamin hugs Anu Komsi while Hilary Summers looks on with the Ensemble Moderne
Photo: mine 2010

The other program I was able to catch at this weekend’s Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast Premiere of George Benjamin’s chamber opera Into the Little Hill. Benjamin, who served as the music director of this year’s festival, wisely made his first attempt at music theater the centerpiece of Saturday night if not the whole festival underscoring his ability to pack an awful lot of very good music into small and concise packages. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006, the work has been seen in London, New York and several other cities, often under the composer’s own baton. He conducted the work himself at Ojai using the forces he had employed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2007 including members of the Ensemble Moderne and two soloists, soprano Anu Komsi and contralto Hilary Summers. (These are also the same performers who appear on the excellent 2008 recording of the work available from Nimbus Records.)

Into the Little Hill is based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and features a rather dark modern-day libretto by Martin Crimp. In his pre-performance talk, Benjamin noted it took him a long time to find someone he wanted to work with and a topic he felt appropriate for an opera project. He noted that above all he wanted to produce something atypical of most contemporary opera, which, he argued, often avoids distinct narratives in favor of either abstractions or more ceremonial pageantry for its structure. Benjamin noted he has always liked telling stories and wanted this work to have a concise and clear narrative structure. So the story of a stranger who rids a small town of its rat infestation only to also rid it of its children when he is refused payment would seem a natural. However, I’m not sure how unique Into the Little Hill is, even in a contemporary context. The other recent opera it brought immediately to my mind in terms of structure if not musical language is John Adams’ A Flowering Tree. Although the latter is scored for a much bigger ensemble and chorus, both works use a fable as their starting point and focus on scenes with only two characters at a time. Adams fills out the plot by including a narrator in the mix as well. Benjamin, on the other hand, concentrates his piece, focusing on a much smaller orchestra and assigning all the narration to his two soloists as well as the six brief but separate roles in the work. The effect of having narration presented often in the same breath as character dialog creates a dissociative and creepy feeling in this rather gruesome and horrific tale.

Benjamin’s music couldn’t be more different from Adams’ either. Into the Little Hill is marked with a much more claustrophobic and direct feeling and I was most taken with how much sound the smallish chamber ensemble was able to produce. To drive this point home, Benjamin had paired the opera in the evening’s program with Stravinsky’s complementary Histoire du Soldat Suite. Also based on a fable, Stravinsky’s work uses only six instrumentalists maximizing each one’s efficacy and role in laying out the drama of his story. Benjamin may use more than twice the players, but the musical tactic is similar. (His scoring includes some unusual elements as well, such as a banjo.) Benjamin’s vocal writing is particularly good, and Komsi and Summers both provided expressive and chilling turns. When Komsi takes the role of the voices of the lost children digging below the surface of the earth in opposition to Summers' lines from the townspeople, it’s very affecting. Best of all Into the Little Hill is also about the power of music in a way we don’t often think about. The crime of the residents of this version of Hamelin is in failing to take music seriously. It would be equally unforgivable not to take Benjamin’s work seriously, given the intensity of this concert performance.


Speaking of Faith

June 12, 2010

Eric Huebner at the 2010 Ojai Music Festival
Photo: mine 2010

There are so many things about the music of Olivier Messiaen that lie almost outside the realm of comprehension. And I suppose that is what makes his music so great. So much of it deals with his deep spiritual faith and attempts to give voice to phenomena that aren’t comprehensible in their own right. I was reminded of this on my only day at the 2010 Ojai Music Festival this year in today’s afternoon performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus by the formidable young pianist Eric Huebner. For starters, it’s hard for me to even imagine the circumstances under which the piece was composed and first performed. Completed in 1944, the two hour plus work was written for and first performed by pianist Yvonne Loriod. It received that premiere in March 1945 in a recently liberated Paris, but still before the end of WWII. Given how unearthly it sounds more than 60 years later, it must have been a shock to that particular audience at that time – an emphatic statement of faith in a Europe that was in a position to question it more than ever. Not that Vingt Regards ignores the darkest days of the 20th century, it actually embraces them in a way that acknowledges that all of this, too, is part of some greater plan.

It still sounds that bold today. Of course, not unlike the Santa Fe Opera, the Ojai festival has a setting that augments the music played here in unexpected ways. A late morning performance of Vingt Regards on a beautiful sunny day surrounded by copious amounts of the very birdsong Messiaen spent his entire career trying to emulate could not have been more poignant. Here was evidence of St. Francis’ own assertion that if one speaks to God in music she will answer you in music. This wasn’t just a concert involving performer and artist, it was one that nature participated in fully at all moments. It was another mystery in its own right.

Finally, there is the matter of mysteries in the work’s performance. Vingt Regards is one long, demanding piece of music. Eric Huebner marshaled amazing strength and consistency, maintaining focus the whole two hours and no one to hide behind. Huebner has given many well received performances here in Ojai, and we were so lucky that her returned with such a superb and Herculean performance. It’s the kind of thing one imagines that even when the performance is finished, he continues to feel the physical remnants of it for hours—if not days—to come like one might experience the sensation of flying after hours and hours of being on an airplane, although having landed long ago. Certainly listening to it is no small matter, and Huebner left an impression that will likely last for a long time.


News Flash

June 10, 2010


So on Thursday I got to meet a group of important American classical music writers including Tim Mangan, Mark Swed, and Anne Midgette. And no, I did not walk into a meeting of the executive committee of the Gustavo Dudamel fan club. The occasion was instead a panel discussion I had been invited to take part in along with these well-regarded journalists at the 2010 Opera America conference that has been taking place in Los Angeles this week. The panel was entitled “Critics, Bloggers, and the Changing Media Landscape” and was moderated by Sherry Stern, the Deputy Arts and Culture Editor for the Los Angeles Times. I enjoyed getting to meet the other panel participants and we talked about a number of topics in a wandering fashion that would be hard to reiterate in any detail here. I tended to be the odd man out in the group, given that most of the moderator’s questions concerned the kind of blogging that print journalists do as part of their broader job activities. This panel may have been about the changing media landscape, but it seemed most concerned about the area around traditional print journalists and the struggles and rewards they encounter when an increasing amount of their work is created for an on-line audience. I did learn a couple of interesting things, though. For one, Midgette noted that the Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog is a respected model for other news organizations around the country. Ms. Stern also noted that Culture Monster has been "successful" in attracting worthwhile ad revenue. Who knew? But still I couldn't help feeling that a lot of this focus on news organizations that may well not be operating in a few years seemed misplaced. Not that these are irrelevant issues, but it seemed to me that this was still about the same press departments talking to the same journalists they always have.

Still, it was interesting to me to meet people I've read so often in the flesh. Tim Mangan is a gentleman and a true scholar. It’s easy for me to see why he’s so popular with the OC. Some of his inventive work on a range of topics has recently been picked up by bigger outlets than his home organization, the Orange County Register, and he deserves the attention. His commentary about his approach to writing about artists like André Rieu and Andrea Bocelli who hold little interest for him personally was quite interesting. The Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed meanwhile informed the crowd that he was an anarchist. No, really. And then he name checked John Cage twice in an hour. This, of course, was followed with his disdain for social media and his insistence that there is nothing inherently good about the kind of writing that appears on blogs or the Internet. The idea being that good writing is good writing wherever it appears and just because more people can get their thoughts distributed more easily doesn't make the conversation any richer. He's apparently only in it for The Art. Or at least The Art of Writing.

I was particularly taken with some of the commentary from The Washington Post's Anne Midgette. Perhaps the most interesting exchange I was involved in was when Midgette politely challenged me on my contention that I am not a journalist and that what I do here at OWA is not journalism. I’ll admit that the assertion is in itself meant to be somewhat a provocation. But I argued, and would continue to, that what I do here is not equivalent to what Midgette or other journalists do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve had no formal training in journalism, nor am I a music professional in any way. I support myself with activities far outside the range of topics on this blog and it is this employment which pays for me to see the things I do and go to the places I go. While I certainly have and do express opinions here, I don’t feel that they are necessarily equivalent to those that come from a source with some formal education or training in the above areas. Now that doesn’t mean that I think what I write is necessarily worse or of lower quality. It just means that I think there’s something worthwhile about professional, well-informed opinions and that they are worth paying for, even in the arts.

But this isn't just about professional credentials. My hesitancy to accept a "journalist" label also stems from what I view as ideological differences I have with the tradition of journalism as a field of endeavor. For me, there's always this issue of the truth when it comes to journalism- getting facts right for "stories" that appear in order to inform some large public. But I've often sensed a real lack of awareness about the social and political forces that shape what is "news" and how these "stories" get made up to begin with. The post-modernist in me refuses to let go of the notion that "news" is essentially a bunch of made up information we as a culture arrange in ways to reaffirm or deny our own anxieties about ourselves. But still we insist on presenting information in contexts where we claim it is "fair and balanced". Well, I don't want that to be true here. OWA is not fair and I certainly hope it isn't balanced. I don't mean to suggest that I think it isn't worthwhile or that you or anyone else shouldn't read it. I just mean that this is a world of words I have created and it may or may not have anything to do with reality. Or more accurately, it's this world of words that helps create reality. Specifically mine, but perhaps some of yours as well.


The Ring is in the Details

June 09, 2010

Arnold Bezuyen as Loge
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

I’ve seen LA Opera’s production of Das Rheingold six times now between its run last spring and its reappearance this summer. (In case you are wondering, I’ve paid for all but one of those tickets out of my own pocket, sports fans.) I’ve written plenty about the production and my admiration for it, so I wasn’t going to rehash that here and now after my latest visit to the show on Tuesday. But what I would like to do is shine a light on some names that haven’t gotten quite as much attention as they deserve in this run. You’ve read plenty about director Achim Freyer, conductor James Conlon, and the production’s biggest stars, Linda Watson, John Treleaven, and Placido Domingo. But the Ring calls for a huge cast whose “smaller” roles require as much singing and effort as the starring roles in any number of other operas in the standard repertoire. It takes a large number of vocalists to make a Ring cycle work, and Los Angeles is quite lucky to have as strong a cast as it does. Many are in heavy make-up, big costumes, and sometimes masks that may make them less recognizable to audience members than they would otherwise be. So over the next several days, as I’m visiting the second cycle, I’d like to highlight a few of these folks who are giving it their all, even if in some cases they fly a little bit below the radar in such a mammoth undertaking as Wagner’s Ring.

Arnold Bezuyen
Photo: Jochen Quast

The two people who absolutely make Das Rheingold for me here in Los Angeles are Arnold Bezuyen and Richard Paul Fink. Dutch tenor Bezuyen is particularly identified with the role of Loge. He’s more or less owned the role at the Bayreuth Festival since 1998 and will appear there again later this summer. (This is also true of several other singers in the LA Opera cast.) Although Bezuyen performs regularly across Europe, his appearances in the U.S. have been much less frequent. And hearing him sing Loge here makes me think what a shame that is. His Loge can have real bite and menace in his voice when he needs it. Members of the Los Angeles Opera League will be lucky enough to hear him in a benefit recital this Saturday—that I would so be at if it weren’t for the matter of Messiaen in Ojai. Bezuyen’s performance is remarkable not just for his vocal quality but his reveling in the costume crafted for his character by Achim Freyer and his daughter Amanda. The red suit with matching converse sneakers is most notable for the extra set of arms and hands included in it. Bezuyen’s Loge is certainly unpredictable with a passive aggressive streak and he wields his extra limbs with abandon. His Loge is as playful as the entire world around him, which is saying a lot given the alien nature of Freyer's competing landscape.

Richard Paul Fink as Ablerich
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

American baritone Richard Paul Fink, on the other hand, is an very well-known quantity to American audiences. His Alberich, one of the most respected in the world, has been seen at the Metropolitan Opera on a number of occasions, and he comes to Los Angeles replacing Gordon Hawkins who appeared in the original run of the production here last spring. I would say Fink’s profile is rising, but that would belittle his many achievements in a career marked with numerous excellent performances in a variety of roles around the world. Outside of Alberich, he recently appeared as Nabucco in San Diego and had a well-received turn as Edward Teller in Adams’ Doctor Atomic. I’m especially looking forward to his performance as Henry Kissinger in Adams’ Nixon in China at the Met next February and as Wozzeck in Santa Fe in 2011. His Alberich is forceful, sharp and he delivers the curse impeccably. Like Bezuyen, he takes his costumes limitations and makes them assets. Alberich is one of the characters masked throughout the entire production leaving him no chance to use his facial expressions. On the other hand, this absence allows for a broader physicality in the role. Fink hams up Alberich’s vanity and incompetence as a suitor with histrionic gestures that would look ridiculous in any other setting. But here, behind the mask, in a world beyond the audience’s recognition, they work exceedingly well. It’s that ability to adapt to different situations in a role that is incredibly familiar to him that makes him so fascinating as a performer. So there are two more great reasons to see Das Rheingold in its final outing here on the 18th if you haven’t already.

Richard Paul Fink


Fade to Black

June 07, 2010

John Treleaven in Act III of Götterdämmerung
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

It is not a common occurrence in my opera-going experience for a stage director of any stripe to receive the largest ovation from the audience at the end of the evening. And perhaps that is as it should be, but at the end of Götterdämmerung on Sunday night and the completion of the Los Angeles Opera’s first complete presentation of a Ring cycle, that is precisely what happened, at least to my ear. Now that does not mean that it was a unanimously positive and supportive ovation. There was certainly booing and people eager to express their displeasure over a production that was not what many of them may be used to or had expected. But from where I sat toward the front of the orchestra the enthusiastic cheers were by far in the majority. The truth of the matter is that our local company stuck out its neck, took some risks and some hits from a variety of quarters, and has walked away with much more than just another opera production, but a serious and— I would argue—ground-breaking, work of art. Like virtually all worthwhile art, it generates some controversy and some heated and divergent opinions about its worth. But make no mistake, people are talking about Freyer’s Ring cycle and from the sound of the audience, people actually care about it passionately, although not always in the same direction. The world may have ended on stage, but it was clearly just getting started in the minds of the audience.

Götterdämmerung is predictably the least changed of the Ring operas from its prior L.A. appearance just two months ago. I’ll admit I’ve warmed up to it quite a bit since then. I’m more enamored with the intentionally distancing elements of this most static of the productions in this cycle including the wonderful unraveling of the theatrical world at the end. There’s something powerful about listening to the final bars of the Ring sitting in complete darkness with the audience. I’ve listened to so many live performances of this particular opera where an overly enthusiastic audience destroys the end of the opera with eager applause. Not here. Freyer ingeniously puts the music center stage right at the end. As Freyer states in his program notes, the empty dark space at the end isn’t simply death, it’s empty potential space we’re asked to fill with the new human world (and theater) in the wake of the death of the gods.

There were other big ovations on Sunday. James Conlon and the orchestra received a great amount of love from everyone. Of the vocalists, Eric Halfvarson’s Hagen and Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde were favorites. And rightly so. Watson’s Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is the strongest of her roles across these evenings and she is unquestionably most convincing exactly when she needs to be as the world is coming down around her. As much as I resent the unprofessional behavior she and John Treleaven exhibited leading up to this run by bad-mouthing the production in the press, I do feel a certain sympathy for everyone in the production. I’m sure it is a challenge to sing in this staging, not only due to its steeply raked stage, but also due to the fact that the set’s floor is often covered with multiple objects from wrinkled fabric to LED tubes. Watson tripped once during the show and both Richard Paul Fink and Jill Grove had seemingly minor tumbles during the curtain calls. But everyone's perseverance is paying off with one hell of a production. The cycle repeats two more times starting Tuesday the 8th and again on Friday the 18th of June. Don't miss out.


To The South

June 06, 2010

Leila Josefowicz and Carl St. Clair with the Pacific Symphony
Photo: mine 2010

I don’t get down to Orange County for performances quite as often as I should, so this Saturday it seemed an ideal time to take a break from the daring and groundbreaking Ring cycle going on in Los Angeles to hear a concert with the Pacific Symphony under its music director of 20 years, Carl St. Clair. St. Clair was in the news here recently after resigning the music directorship of the Komische Oper in Berlin before his contract had expired over conflict with the liberties taken by a stage director in a production of Fidelio he was conducting. Which is fair enough, but complaining about the extent of Regietheater at the Komische Oper is kind of like quitting your job as a vice cop in Hollywood after realizing that you would come across a lot of prostitutes. In any event, the scope of his job with the Pacific Symphony calls for much less boundary pushing where the typical season is filled to the rafters with familiar favorites. This weekend was no exception with Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and a Mozart Symphony.

And while there may not seem to be much of a thread here between these easy-to-swallow favorites, there was a moderate outlier in the mix this weekend in the form of John Adams’ Violin Concerto, played by soloist Leila Josefowicz. The Pacific Symphony is no stranger to the works of American composers and Josefowicz is one of the biggest advocates for this work and she has played it all over the world, including Los Angeles, with amazing fire and dexterity. Her Pacific Symphony engagement was no exception, and she preceded the performance with brief comments from the stage, giving an overview of the work’s highlights. Given Josefowicz’ nimble and certain approach, it’s important for the orchestra to come ready to do some serious business. And they did get around to it, though I must admit after the rather sleepy Ravel opener, it took a couple of movements for the ensemble to really catch up with the soloist. The third movement, though, was spot on. The rest of the show was warmly played without too much fuss. I’m always a sucker for the Firebird Suite, and St. Clair did deliver some powerful big moments without overdoing the whole thing. So for a break from Wagner, it wasn’t a bad night at all.


Rotator Cuff

June 05, 2010

Partch, the ensemble, at REDCAT
Photo: mine 2010

With all the Ring excitement this week, it might have been easy to overlook some other worthwhile musical events in town. Included in those would be the annual appearance by Partch, the ensemble dedicated to the preservation and performance of American composer Harry Partch. These musicians returned in their annual visit with their reconstructed versions of Partch’s idiosyncratic instruments to REDCAT this week for an evening that really couldn’t be any farther from the music of Wagner if they tried. This year’s theme focused on “Vernacular Music” or specifically works that are based on speech and often incorporate common ethnic or folk elements. This idea is commonplace to a listener today, but was far more outside the norm when Partch was composing in the 1950s before “World Music” was a category on iTunes. In addition to three pieces from Partch, the ensemble also played the similarly themed Canticle #3 from Lou Harrison and Anne LeBaron’s Southern Ephemera.

The centerpiece of the evening was Partch’s “opera” Even Wild Horses, which loosely incorporates text from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Over three acts and eight scenes that ran about 30 minutes, Partch incorporates a wide variety of Latin and African dance rhythms across his oversized marimbas, and various stringed instruments. There is a small amount of half-spoken, half-sung text in Act II, but this is not narrative material by any means. Partch’s music is nothing if not a lot of fun, though it can sometime be tinged with an eerie sense of memory. (Take a look at the clip above from 1968 for a sense of it.) And while this is certainly present in Horses, I was even more struck by the inventiveness in another offering on the program, a film directed by Madeline Tourtelot from 1961 entitled Rotate the Body in All Its Planes – Ballad for Gymnasts. While Partch was preparing a performance of another work at the University of Illinois in Urbana in that year, the school’s gymnastic coach came for a visit to check up on athletes that were involved in the composer’s upcoming performance. The coach was so taken with what he saw, he convinced Partch to develop Rotate to be performed in conjunction with the NCAA championship meet to take place at the University later that year. Partch did, and the resulting music, timed to coincide with the gymnastic performances of these athletes, was caught on film. The film is a product of its time, but amazing in that it’s the product of a collaboration I would imagine being quite alien in today’s ever balkanized world of academia. So while there were no gods falling from grace in Partch’s tinkling melodies, the return of the ensemble bearing his name was welcome this week as it always is.


Oh The Places You'll Go

June 04, 2010

John Treleaven and Vitalij Kowaljow in Act III of Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Wagner’s Siegfried returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday as Los Angeles Opera carried on with its first compete Ring cycle following Sunday’s Die Walküre performance. And, although the time between the regular subscription run of Siegfried last Fall and now was less than the time away for the two prior installments of the Ring, there are far more changes to Siegfried in this return engagement than with its predecessors. Achim Freyer has kept the overall visual elements the same, but large amounts of the stage business in all three acts has been revised often in favor of simpler, sharper movements. As over the weekend, the staging seems tighter with improved cues and lighting that sometimes feels as if it has been totally reworked. Some of the biggest changes concern Siegfried’s interaction with the dragon Fafner in Act II, which still relies on an anachronistic cartoon dragon for Fafner, but is now embodied by one of Freyer's movement ensemble members who spends much more time on stage in a costume than the puppet had previously. There were several alterations in the third Act as well that maintained the overall visual sense of the production, but like the change in the dragon, somewhat blunted the more alienating edges of Freyer’s prior ideas.

That is not to say that Siegfried doesn't look like its brethren. It’s still a visually brilliant and totally unique production that willfully ignores the tropes of staging Wagner's operas in the last half-Century. And, while I know several people disagree with me, I still believe that Siegfried is perhaps the most compelling opera of this whole production. Wagner’s third installment of the Ring story can be bogged down with both disparate plot elements and a central character modern audiences have trouble understanding. It is also often the most likely to musically disappoint. But Freyer views Siegfried as primarily about linear motion and a race to the end resulting in his keen focus on the flow of time in the opera’s libretto. Even when Siegfried is laying around the forest floor playing music for the birds, the heat is on in this world. The Force of Destiny is never absent from the stage in any minute of these several hours and the pressure towards these events on the characters is relentless.

Musically, things were a little bumpier on Thursday than they had been over the weekend. Siegfried was sung by John Treleaven, which was somewhat of a mixed blessing. The good news was that after bad-mouthing the production and the company to the press a couple weeks back, he still showed up to sing. The bad news was, he still showed up to sing. Even before his voice was gone in Act III, you were kind of wishing it was anyway. Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde seems primed to take pity on him when she arrives by keeping her voice down somewhat. There was little noticeable booing directed toward Treleaven, so apparently people were not focused on his singing. The rest of the cast, however, shined, including Vitalji Kowaljow as Wotan and Graham Clark as Mime. The orchestra was again fairly driven, compared to last Fall, but seemed a little more scrappy on Thursday than I might have liked. Still, this Ring cycle is an event to be sure. Thursday's audience had even gotten celebritied-up with the faces of Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz.



June 02, 2010

Christine Brewer

I have only one criticism of American soprano Christine Brewer’s appearance in Los Angeles this week. It is that she was singing the wrong material on the wrong stage. Specifically I mean that she should be the one singing Brünnhilde in Los Angeles Opera’s currently running presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle instead of the lackluster Linda Watson. Now I know that you’ll all point out the many reasons that Brewer couldn’t be in this Ring cycle, or perhaps any Ring cycle if you believe the kind of gossip you read on the Internet. And certainly she didn’t manage to follow through on her scheduled 2009 Metropolitan opera appearances in that same role for reported health reasons. But come on people, there has got to be some way to make this happen. It is a crime that perhaps the best-suited living voice to Wagner’s heroine is not singing it everywhere. If Joyce DiDonato can do an entire run of Rosina in a wheelchair and Placido Domingo can sing his umpteenth new role with audible line-by-line prompter support, there is no reason Brewer can’t be put into a reasonable Ring production somewhere.

So while you industrious opera companies are working on that one, let me tell you how beautifully sung Brewer’s recital at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was. She has a warm and sizable instrument that is beautifully controlled. And if you think all Wagnerian singing is essentially shouting, you haven’t heard it sung the way Brewer can – piercingly bright, and richly textured. We did get a little Wagner from Brewer on Tuesday in the form of the Wesendock Lieder which provided enough of an excuse for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who sponsored the recital, to state they were participating in the L.A. Ring Festival. These beautifully written songs come from one of the most fruitful times in Wagner’s artistic life and carry the hallmarks of both the Ring and the later Tristan und Isolde. As beautiful as they were in Brewer’s performance, they were equally bittersweet considering that everyone in the audience knew exactly what we were missing in not having her performing across the street at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The rest of the program was similar to the one she gave in Cerritos last Fall including two songs from Joseph Marx and a variety of English language works in the second half of the program. Brewer loves the music of Benjamin Britten and featured his Four Cabaret Songs. She also returned to “Echoes of Nightingales”, a set of concert songs she’s collected which were regularly performed by great sopranos of the early to mid-twentieth century including Helen Traubel, Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad. Granted this material can be a bit kitschy, but her vocal performance of it is impeccable and often elevates it to a much higher level. Brewer did four encores along with her accompanist Craig Rutenberg. And even though it was not a sold out crowd for this Spring's final spring program at WDCH, Brewer received a highly enthusiastic ovation. For now, we’ll just have to take what we can get.


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